Flying into Grozny, a city dominated by brand-new skyscrapers and a massive four-towered mosque, it’s hard for me not to reflect on the other times I’d arrived here.
In the past, I always arrived in Grozny by road. Sometimes I would come by car with a driver willing to risk taking a human rights investigator through multiple military checkpoints. On other occasions, I would arrive by local minibus, wearing a headscarf and local dress, hoping the soldiers would not bother to check my documents.
I’ve never stayed in an air-conditioned room in Grozny either. Rather, I would stay with people who were kind enough and brave to host me, in half-destroyed houses with no running water on streets lit up by fire coming out of the holes in gas pipes.
Rather than chatting to Oyub Titiev over a glass of sweet tea, I am watching him as he sits in a metal cage as this absurd, Kafkaesque trial unfolds
For years, during the so-called Second Chechen War, I came here to document and expose unimaginable abuses. These abuses were committed first by Russian troops fighting the Chechen insurgency, and then by the even more feared “Kadyrovtsy” – security forces under control of Ramzan Kadyrov, who still runs Chechnya, now as President.
First, there were carpet bombings that wiped entire villages off the map and caused thousands of civilian deaths. Then there were brutal “sweep operations” in which hundreds of men and boys would be picked up at night to be never seen again. Women I interviewed spent days on end going from one mass grave to another, looking for their husbands, brothers, and sons. Those lucky enough to survive talked about months and years spent in one of Kadyrov’s secret prisons, tortured so hard their wounds would never heal and forever haunted by the images of other prisoners executed in front of them daily. Hundreds of thousands have fled and were constantly pushed back to return to their destroyed homeland, because officially the “war was over”. Back then, the fear in Chechnya, was palpable.
My first stop in Grozny would always be the office of Memorial human rights centre – a local brunch of Russia’s most prominent human rights organisation. We went through the cases they documented, we strategized, we often visited witnesses together and, of course, drank a lot of tea in their tiny kitchen which felt like the most welcoming and safe place amidst the chaos. It was difficult to comprehend that people could not only live in this hell, but also work, every day, keeping meticulous record of violations, trying to help the victims, confronting the authorities, and fighting seemingly unwinnable battles in courts. I came often, but I always left, and they stayed—despite slander, and attacks, and death threats.
One of the most dreaded places in Chechnya at the time was Gudermes, Kadyrov’s headquarters, where his forces had completely free rein. When Kadyrovstys’ silver cars with tinted windows and no license plates swishing down the streets, people would try to make themselves invisible.
It was in Gudermes, in 2003, when I first met Oyub Titiev. Or, rather – Oyub. I didn’t know his last name and didn’t ask—the risks he faced working as Memorial’s representative there were enormous. He was careful, and quiet, but relentless. His work documenting human rights abuses and helping their victims was courageous and priceless and, of course, not unknown to the authorities. Over the years, the threats and warnings he and his colleagues were facing, at times coming from the very top of the Chechen administration, have become more and more explicit.
The abduction and murder in 2009 of Natalya Estemirova, a leading investigator in Memorial’s Grozny office, was clearly meant not only to silence her but also to send a message to others, like Oyub, to stop.
But rather than being silenced, Oyub he took over, becoming the head of Memorial in Chechnya. He refused to leave in the face of mounting risks, and continued to lead the organisation’s work against all odds.
In January 2018, Ouyb’s car was stopped as he was leaving his home town of Kurchaloy and arrested. Police claimed they found a bag of marijuana in his car. The accusation was unthinkable for anyone who knows Oyub: a 60-year-old family man, a sportsman, a devote Muslim and one of the most respected individuals in Chechnya. But the authorities here have never shied away from such blatant moves to silent their critics.
This week found myself in a room with Ouyb again, but rather than being in Memorial’s office I was in a courtroom in Shali, Chechnya’s third largest city. Rather than chatting to him over a glass of sweet tea, I am watching him as he sits in a metal cage as the absurd, Kafkaesque trial unfolds.
When he sees me, Oyub greets me as an old friend. He asks me to pass on his thanks to the supporters who have sent him letters and messages of support. “This support is much needed. But it will all be fine,” he assures me. Same old Oyub: strong as ever, focused, and fearless.
Watching this trial, I am reminded again that glittering skyscrapers and blooming parks in Chechnya do not hide the fundamental truth: the place is haunted
Witnesses for prosecution, including the criminal investigator who brought the case against Oyub, fail to answer key questions. When quizzed by the defence they repeat their mantra like a broken record: “it was long ago”, “I don’t remember”, “I am not sure”. As the unanswered questions mount, the patches of sweat seep ever further across the criminal investigator’s shirt. He clearly doesn’t know what to say. He gets angry. The Prosecutors get even angrier, interrupting the defence, and whispering answers to the witness.
Watching this trial, I am reminded again that glittering skyscrapers and blooming parks in Chechnya do not hide the fundamental truth: the place is haunted. It will remain haunted until the crimes of the past are accounted for and the abuses of the present are brought to an end. Oyub Titiev is one of the few people who has worked tirelessly to ensure that the change in Chechnya is real and that behind the shiny facades people can live without fear. As long as he remains behind bars, the impressive makeover does not fool anyone.